My Best Friend's Exorcism Writer On Using A Demonic Force To Explore Teenage Fears And Hopes [Exclusive Interview]

As "Jennifer's Body" scribe Diablo Cody once wrote, "Hell is a teenage girl." So much happens at that hectic age — bodies rapidly grow into self-aware and self-consciousness beings exploring sexuality, identities, and a desire for autonomy. All of this unfolds as teens are acutely aware of how socially acceptable they are and to whom. I remember how acne felt like a death sentence. For teens, knowing who to speak to, and when, is vital — a stealth mission in navigating the murky waters of popularity. Make the wrong move, and you've sunk your battleship, along with any hope of having weekend plans. Social rejection felt like a powerfully fatal curse.

But what if a friendship could save your soul from darker forces? Prime Video's "My Best Friend's Exorcism" explores this question as a tender coming-of-age horror film. Produced by Christopher Landon ("Freaky," "Happy Death Day"), the film follows a similar approach to his prior work by depicting young adults in harrowing situations with touches of dark comedy and body horror. Based on Grady Hendrix's beloved novel of the same name, "My Best Friend's Exorcism" delves into how hard it is to be a teenage girl and who (or what) preys on you during that uncertain time. Taking place in 1988, the film follows Abby (Elsie Fisher) and Gretchen's (Amiah Miller) friendship unraveling after a demon claims Gretchen.

I spoke to "My Best Friend's Exorcism" screenwriter Jenna Lamia ("Resident Alien") about how she approached adapting Hendrix's novel. We discussed how your body possessed a mind of its own when you're a teen and how this helped shape the film's horror. At its heart, the film uses a sinister demonic force to unveil the anxieties and hopes of teenage girls.

'They are each other's salvation...'

When you were adapting Grady Hendrix's book, what were some things about it that you felt really important to keep in the final product?

There were a lot of decisions to be made. The book has so much wonderful stuff in it. The first few drafts I was trying to include as much as I could, because the book takes the two best friends Gretchen and Abby from childhood, so you see Abby's "E.T." birthday party, and when they first meet, and Gretchen brings her a bible as a gift, which was one of my favorite scenes in the book. I wanted to include all of those things, and in fact, a lot of those things were in early drafts. To put it bluntly, because of budget considerations, and this was shot during COVID, and it's hard to have minors coming out to work a lot... There were a lot of decisions that had to be made that weren't really creative. We had to pick and choose what ended up in the movie. 

I knew more than anything that what I needed to capture was the strength of their friendship. That tagline — "Is your friendship strong enough to beat the devil?" — you really felt that in the book. I couldn't believe it when I found out that Grady Hendrix was a male, because I thought their friendship and youth was captured so accurately. I loved the dialogue of the book. I tried to use all the dialogue from the book in every scene that I could, especially for the Lemon brothers. I tried to keep essence of that friendship. You know they truly love each other. They are each other's salvation from the things in their lives. I hope we did that.

'I think Gretchen is like a rock star to Abby'

Speaking of Amy and Gretchen's friendship, what do you think the two character brings out in one another? Why is their bond so strong?

There's a scene in the movie where Gretchen sees Abby's s**tting on herself. She's like, "My skin sucks..." And Gretchen stops and she's like, "Stop that. You're beautiful. Someday everyone else is gonna see what I see, which is that you're a stone cold fox." I loved that scene. I love the way the actresses did it. I think what Gretchen brings out in Abby is a self-confidence, because she's having a hard time right now with that. In the book, Abby was really self-conscious of her skin. There were so many great descriptions of her whole routine of covering each zit. I related to that like my friends and I used to bring out the arsenal and we'd have all our tips or advice on things to do. I still do it. I deeply related to Abby. I think a lot of readers probably do and did. I also related to the way that Gretchen was Abby's cheerleader, and was like, "Stop doubting yourself." You can tell when they go to the lake house that Abby is feeling a little more confident to take the piss out of her friends. When Gretchen is around she's strengthened to be her funny, charming self. So that's definitely what Gretchen brings out in Abby. 

And then for Gretchen, I think Abby is the definition of ride or die. You know she isn't gonna let her friend go down without a fight. She's totally devoted to her. It's her first love. I think her feelings for Gretchen are so pure. I think Gretchen is like a rock star to Abby. I had a friend growing up who felt that way to me too — her house was awesome, she had like the all white rugs, and really pretty. I feel like that's what Abby feels like too. Everything at Gretchen's house is clean and probably a lot more expensive. What Gretchen gets from Abby is unconditional love. I don't think she gets that from her parents. Her parents are really strict and they want her to do certain things and check certain boxes. Abby is not that way with her. I love their friendship.

'Every day is life or death in high school'

I've heard the book called "The Exorcist" meets "Heathers," which is a take I'm not sure I agree with, but I do think like "Heathers," this film digs into how teenage girls can be particularly cruel in a discreet way. It's not socially acceptable to be outwardly aggressive, so teen girls get real good at barbed insults. I'd love to hear how you approached violence and cruelty in this film and if you had any rules for how far it'd go?

That's a really good question. I always say I love teenage girls stories because, especially in the context of horror, puberty is horror. Every day, the stakes are so high. Every day is life or death in high school. In this movie, we dug into how particularly that can be true for girls. Not only in that our bodies are totally out of our control, which is really terrifying. That was one of the main things that drew me to this. That's a scary time, you're physically changing. I thought that was a nice metaphor, like Gretchen is out of control of what's going on with her. But every teenage girl can relate to that. You almost feel possessed. You're moody, your boobs are sprouting, zits are coming out all over. Some of your friends are six feet tall Amazons, and then other people still haven't changed at all. They're still like no hips and no boobs. It's a very strange time. 

The other part is what you point out, which is that girls can really give it to one another in ways that really shape you for the rest of your life. Like going through that gauntlet and getting your tools sharpened to deal with the meanness, or figuring out if you're one of the mean girls or one of the nice girls. I don't think young people like categorize each other the way we did when I was in high school. Like, there's not nerds and jocks anymore. But I hazard to guess that some of that stuff is always going to be true. We'll just name it something different. 

But as far as your question about how far to take it, Christopher Landon and I did have some conversations, especially about the rating. We did pull back on some things for the sake of the rating. Some of the early drafts had a lot of gore and body horror, which I think was appropriate because of its themes. But there were things that were cut. There was a scene where Wallace, the jock, had crabs crawling all over his body. So there were things deemed to be too much. There's an area where we pulled back. Yeah, there were a lot of ways we could have gone. We could have gone way gorier. In the end of the book, there's an amazing sequence where they're doing the exorcism. There's wind blowing everywhere in this realm, and we couldn't afford it. So we had to get creative with trying to build as much with the interpersonal stakes, but not go so far as to be overtly cruel. It could have gone so far that you stopped relating to Gretchen. If she were too terribly mean, you wouldn't believe that this foursome were really in love with one another. So we were careful with that too. 

I think some movies... This is not gonna sound nice, but sometimes when men write teen girls, I think it's easy to do two dimensions and not that third. We're just mean and snarky. But there's something behind when we're snarky. Usually, that's because you're drawn to the person. You're almost jealous of them. You want to be like them. You kind of love them. You're spending so much time talking about them on the phone because you're fascinated by them. Teen girls can become, for lack of a better word, rockstars to one another. There's a lot going on in their minds.

We wanted the readers to still get some of that fun

Yeah, in 2000s-era horror, there was this trend of teen girls always calling each other b**ches and sluts in a cruel way. But that's not how women talk.

I don't want to hate on all men. Some of the most incredible writers are men. But sometimes teen girls are written that way, and it's disappointing because that's really just not accurate. Like I've never called a girl a slut to be mean ever. I don't know any girls that have done that. The only time you might ever say that to somebody, which is not a thing I do, would be like a compliment or like a ribbing. Like in "Resident Alien," that is something that we really had a lot of fun with in season 1, between D'arcy and my character Judy. We're like, "What's up, slut?" But we were so clearly friends with a relationship that has a mutual ribbing.

There are a lot of fun special and digital effects in this, but special effects can change a lot from what's on the page to what shows up on screen for a lot of reasons. Do any changes come to mind? I keep thinking of that worm scene...

I saw the briefest clip of that, and it looked awesome. I haven't seen the finished product yet but that scene was so well done in the book. There were a few things we cut, but I haven't seen the final product, so I'm not sure which ones weren't done at all. 

But there was a critical piece in the book, it was called the block house, where she gets possessed. They're in the room and it's very dark and something moves in the corner and they're like, "What is that?" I remember describing it as this effigy because I had been to this island and saw these like stick sculptures that were one of the scariest things I've ever seen. They were like human shaped things made out of sticks. Oh, they were so scary! I took a picture of them. I always thought that what was in that house might look a little bit like that. But I really wasn't there when they shot it. I think they may have come up with something equally scary. But that was a really interesting one,because in the book it's darkness. But how do you shoot pure darkness? There's movement in the dark. We really needed to see something. We needed to see that there had been some life in that room. There was writing on the wall and stuff like that, but I'm very curious how that turned out...

Without spoiling anything, I love that the film has ending title cards with such a fun '80s throwback feel to it. How fun was it to tie up these character arcs and give them a little bit of a second life?

I love that about it. I love everything they kept from the key art from the book. I don't know if you've ever seen the book, but it was structured like a yearbook, at least one of the publication versions was structured like a yearbook. Those end cards remind me of that, like where I'm hoping to go. It has the same fun essence. We weren't able to go back in time and show them as kids and the book goes forward in time quite a bit. We wanted the readers to still get some of that fun. I don't know if you can tell but the only thing I'm terrified about is if Grady and the books' biggest fans are happy with the movie.

"My Best Friend's Exorcism" is now streaming on Prime Video.